Meaning Well is Not Enough! We Actually Have to Do Well.

I have noticed that it is very common today that moral assessments seem to center quite a lot around the intentions and feelings of the person involved. What is actually being done seems less significant and as long as a person “means well” or feels something is right then it is OK for them and we should make no further moral discernments. It is enough for too many that the person feels  the act is right and means well.

But the fact is such criteria are NOT enough. Moral uprightness consists in doing well, not just meaning well or feeling well. Intentionality is not wholly insignificant, especially when it comes to assigning a level of “culpability” (guilt or blame). But intentionality and surely feelings cannot be the only determinative factors in assessing a moral act. We must look at the act itself, what actually happens, as the primary consideration of the moral quality of that act. We cannot simply say that something is good, it must actually be good.

Let me give a few examples as to why the actual, concrete act is the essential factor in determining the goodness or fittingness of an act.

  1. Every day I move between the buildings that make up our parish plant. Going in and out of buildings requires the use of keys. Now many of these keys look alike. As I approach the Church door, I take out my keys and put what I think is the Church key in the lock. Now I do this with best of intentions. I think I am doing what is right, I feel that what I am doing is right. Only problem is that I put the rectory key in the Church lock. Despite all my good intentions, despite that I thought and felt I was doing what was right, the lock does not turn. All the good intentions in the world will not make that lock turn. I may swear that I think I am right, and that I feel right. But none of those things will win the day and turn that lock. I actually have to DO what is right to get the proper result. The right key has to go in the right lock to get the right result. What I actually do is the determinative factor. Feelings, thoughts and intentions cannot win the day.
  2. To get to your house you tell me to turn right on Park Ave. But I turn left. I may think you said left, I may sense or feel I am going in the proper direction, I may intend to be doing what is right but none of that is going to change the fact that I am going 30 mph in the wrong direction and am not going to get to your house until I actually DO what is right.
  3. There is a can of paint in a hallway as I walk down. I kick the can of paint over and paint spills all over the floor. Whether I did so intentionally or not will not change the fact that we’ve got a mess on our hands here that has to be cleaned but. But in this example, intentionality and what I think or know is important to determine how blameworthy I am. It is possible that my act of kicking the paint over was purely accidental. Perhaps I was unaware that painting was going on in the hall and I could not see the can as I rounded the corner. In this case my culpability (or blameworthiness) is probably very low if not non-existent. But suppose I knew there was painting going on and failed to exercise proper attentiveness. I kick the can of paint over through carelessness. In this case I have some blame. But suppose I saw the can of paint and (perhaps out of anger) purposefully kicked it over. Now my blame is full. So intentions, knowledge and feelings are important in assessing the blameworthiness of a person. But these things cannot render a bad thing good. No matter what my intentions thoughts or feelings, we still have a big mess to clean up. The objective truth is that there is paint all over the floor. Simply saying, I had good intentions or didn’t know any better does not make the mess go away.

Too many people today use flawed or incomplete reasoning when it comes to morally assessing acts. Intentions, how a person feels, or what they think and know can affect blameworthiness buy they cannot make a bad thing good, they cannot make an evil act upright, they cannot remove the harm or negative results of an incorrect, bad or evil act. There is still a mess to clean up. There is still a U-turn to make, there is still a right key to find. Reality sets in.

There is a lot of flawed moral reasoning today around the issue of intentionality, feelings and thoughts. Important though these factors are they cannot undo reality. They cannot form the basis for judging the uprightness or wrongness of an act. Time to get back to reality in moral judgments. Time to do well, not just mean well. Time to actually do what is right not just think or feel you’re right. Back to reality.

The following video is a good example of the world’s moral reasoning. A man is in jail. All we need to know is that he meant well and had the best of intentions. How he landed in jail, all the other wrong things he’s done in his life, they matter so little that we are not even told what they were. ALL that matters is that he had the best of intentions.  “Enjoy”  the video.

16 Replies to “Meaning Well is Not Enough! We Actually Have to Do Well.”

  1. Awesome article. I love the key metaphor. I think you could have expanded a bit on the paint and reparation, but maybe that’s for another article, Godwilling.

  2. That is all very fine in a Godly world but the reality is that You can do right and if those around you are corrupt, slanderous imposters with evil intentions,

    one is left with psalm 35. 🙂 Noah & Lot and the false teachers @ 2 Peter 2
    Many a man is falsely accused because we live in a very evil age. Lieing has become the norm even with our leaders in the Church.

      1. I mean to say you CAN do right
        but if those around you are evil,
        they will slander your good character, like they did
        with Joseph, Noah, Lot, etc.etc, Jesus.
        Read carefully…You Can do right even in very evil world and Church ,
        but because those around you are corrupt, and lie,
        the righteous will suffer because we are in this evil age.

      2. Ok Thanks for the clarification. I agree that we need to be prepared to suffer if we speak and live the truth. Your reference to this evil age reminds me of the opening lines of the Letter to the Galatians:

        Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

  3. St Vincent DePaul’s operational philosophy reflects this as well. His writings reflected a concern for concentrating on each individual’s humanity and that we all need to build institutions and structures to not only do good, but do it well.

  4. I once had a pastor, protestant/evangelical, who would often remark, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!” I’ve never forgotten that remark, crude as it may seem, and have often utilized it as a springboard for real concrete action. The struggle to move beyond those good intentions is still around now that I’m a Catholic, but oh what wonderful resources I find in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Life giving and healing sacraments, the communion of the saints, the teaching authority of the magesterium; these things all empower me in Christ to do and to act in ways I never could in the past.

    1. Yes, thanks for the reminder of this old saying. Glad to hear that the sacraments are helping as good medicine should. I wish more Catholics had an understanding that they are a necessary medicine to help us do well.

  5. The thinking that good intentions are what count, combined with the short sightedness so common these days seems to lie at the root of why we are struggling today.

    Action is far more important than intention, but if actions are performed only with “right now” in mind, and not what will happen in the longer term, they often end up causing pretty severe problems and hurting far more people than they were hoped to help

  6. [Intentionality is not wholly insignificant, especially when it comes to assigning a level of “culpability” (guilt or blame). But intentionality and surely feelings cannot be the only determinative factors in assessing a moral act. We must look at the act itself, what actually happens, as the primary consideration of the moral quality of that act. We cannot simply say that something is good, it must actually be good.]

    Intending to act is not the same as actually performing, hence “the road to hell IS paved with GOOD intentions” that are never acted on.

    So much depends on our own honesty with ourselves and formation of our conscience, dialog with God, and whether we HONESTLY are willing to place His will above ours. God does give us through the Holy Spirit and lots of prayer the wsidom and ability to know the difference betwen right and wrong, good and evil. BUT we must be willing to listen with ALL of our senses to His voice within us and act accodingly.

  7. You have such moral clarity, and the gift to explain it to others. I am so grateful to have happened upon this site a few months ago. Thank you. I have to say …. I’m a bit addicted. (big grin)

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